“We didn’t know where we were going.”
The wise old soldier is one of the last survivors of France’s colonial-era African infantry, which fought in two world wars as well as colonial conflicts in North Africa and Indo-China.
After years of neglect, the troops are the subject of a blockbuster movie, “Tirailleurs,” opening in France and Senegal this week, that stars Omar Sy — best known internationally for the Netflix crime series “Lupin”.
Sy plays a Senegalese father who joins the French army voluntarily during World War I to keep an eye on his son, who has been forced into uniform. Both find themselves thrust into the horrors of the Western Front.
The “tirailleurs,” or “skirmishers,” were formed in Senegal in 1857 to create a corps of lightly armed, mobile troops to harass the enemy ahead of an advancing main force.
Following the outbreak of World War I, France recruited from its West African colonies to transform the tirailleurs into a force designed to pound the Germans on the Western Front.
They took part in a number of key battles, most notably holding the line at a critical point in Verdun in 1916, arguably the most important battle of the four-year conflict.
According to the specialist French magazine Historia, 30,000 of the 134,000 tirailleurs who fought in WWI were killed.
Survivors were frequently paralyzed or scarred by trauma, but their stories were often relegated to footnotes, and their names were never featured on local war memorials in France – the daily reminder to French people of the cost of the war.
High-sounding plans to provide hospitals and pensions were downgraded or sapped by bureaucracy, and tirailleurs were occasionally treated second-class compared to their French counterparts.
Tens of thousands of tirailleurs fought in Sub-Saharan and North Africa during WWII, as well as in the 1944 landings in southern France.
Dieye said he joined the Seventh Regiment of tirailleurs in May 1940 in his hometown of Thies, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Dakar.
His unit was shipped out to Madagascar after basic training near Dakar, but had to turn around due to a submarine threat.
It then moved on to the French Congo and then to Gabon, where it liberated Libreville from the collaborationist Vichy government “after a few shots,” he said.
The regiment was sent to the Middle East to prepare for operations in Europe, but by then, Berlin had fallen.
Dieye returned to Senegal in 1945 as a sergeant and later joined the police force, retiring in 1972 at the age of 52.
He now lives in Thies, surrounded by photos and mementos from his years of service.
Slow-moving but sharp-eyed, he is bitter towards France, accusing it of “dishonesty”.
In December 1944, French troops at a barracks near Dakar opened fire on mutinous tirailleurs demanding restitution for years spent in POW camps.
The official death toll of 35 has been disputed, and the soldiers’ common grave has never been found. Despite an attempt by former French President Francois Hollande to shed light for reconciliation, the episode remains murky and bitterly remembered in Senegal.
“You send someone to war, he claims his money and you punish him” by killing him, said Dieye, a tone of disgust in his voice.
He reserves his greatest anger for France’s failure to pay his military pension, equivalent to 750 euros (dollars) annually, for the past two years.
“France hasn’t kept its promise,” he said. “I depend on the Good Lord and my children to survive. I get nothing as a former tirailleur. Zilch from France.”
According to a source at Senegal’s armed forces ministry’s Veterans’ Affairs Office, after military pensioners reach the age of 100, France usually requires documented proof that they are still alive.
Historian Mamadou Kone estimated that only about ten World War II tirailleurs were still alive in Senegal. Abdoulaye Ndiaye, the last World War I tirailleur, died in 1998 at the age of 104.
Tirailleurs were long at home “They were shunned and regarded as armed enforcers of French imperialism. Their image was tarnished “Kone stated.
Things changed in 2004, when then-President Aboulaye Wade declared December 1 as a national holiday to commemorate the tirailleurs’ achievements “in two world wars that liberated the world from Nazism and fascism,” as he put it.